Wild NZ: Expedition dust – Wildboy tackles Oz

Wild NZ: Expedition dust – Wildboy tackles Oz

Australia was always something I wanted to do – I just didn’t know what I wanted to do there! I’d done the walking, the kayaking, the survival stuff … and I was keen for something different. So the idea of doing a bicycle adventure sounded great.

by Mike Cooney

The Red Centre of Australia – home to some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain, and filled with some of the world’s most inhospitable creepy-crawlies – is where you’ll find Brando Yelavich if you’re wanting to catch up for coffee sometime over the next few months. 

Our very own Wildboy is at it again; this time crossing the ditch to cycle between the widest points of Australia – around 4,670 kilometres – from Steep Point in the west, to Cape Byron on the east. He’ll be self-sufficient, carrying all he needs on his bike and back, doing his very best to avoid flash floods, snakes, spiders and rabid packs of wild dingoes … and he’ll be joined by an ordinary Kiwi woman who simply said “yes” to adventure.

Sounds dramatic? You betcha it is!

It’d been a couple of years since I’d last caught up with Brando, who first came to fame after his legendary trek around the coastline of New Zealand as a 19-year-old. It was supposed to take him six months … but 600 days later he was still walking! It was a world-first that completely transformed his life, and his subsequent book Wildboy became an instant bestseller. 

Since then, Brando hasn’t sat still for long. After a stint truck-driving, he studied adventure tourism in Nelson, then felt the call of the wild again – this time to walk the coastline of Stewart Island (because that’s what you do when you feel the call!).

After that, GoPro flew him to San Francisco for an event, and then on his way home he popped over to Nepal for an aid expedition with a family from Auckland – one of his more humbling experiences. 

“I came back from that trip feeling a little shaken,” he tells me. “I realised that some people have it so tough, and yet they’re so happy. Even if they’re struggling to put food on the table, they’ll drop everything to help you. I want to be like that.”

After Nepal, Brando managed to join an expedition to Greenland, where he grew to love the colour white. “If you could imagine walking around the inside of a ping pong ball for 30 days, that’s what it was like!”

But his favourite mission so far was 70 days kayaking around Vancouver Island with his now-fiancée, Ngaio. In Brando’s words, “It was phenomenal!” One of these days, remind me to tell you how Brando fought off a wild grizzly bear, whilst completely starkers …

Even though Brando lives just up the coast from me, he’d already left for his Aussie adventure by the time I’d figured out this would make a good story. Which meant that, instead of a relaxing catch-up over a coffee in the Coromandel, I had to Skype him in Sydney … which, despite all the potential things to go wrong, I somehow managed to pull off.

MIKE: So … what’s this crazy new mission, Expedition Dust, all about?

BRANDO: Australia was always something I wanted to do – I just didn’t know what I wanted to do there! I’d done the walking, the kayaking, the survival stuff … and I was keen for something different. So the idea of doing a bicycle adventure sounded great. And then from that, the thought of travelling the width of Australia – from the most western point, through the centre, out to the most eastern point – came about. So, I started making plans, talking to people about sponsorship, figuring out what route to take … and slowly, the idea started taking shape. 

But I think the most interesting part about this journey is who I’m doing it with. Initially I was going to take someone with me who was already an accomplished explorer. But then I thought, why not take an ordinary, regular person – someone who inspires other people to think “that could be me!”

I met Loren while she was working on the Greenland expedition film. We’d only talked once, but we’d connected – she had a great personality, and I liked the way she wore her heart on her sleeve. So I called her up and asked if she wanted to say “yes” to adventure, and cross Australia with me!

MIKE: And she obviously said “YES!”?

BRANDO: Yep! She agreed – which was awesome, because she’s going to be able to show everyone that ordinary can be extraordinary! I mean, I’m just an ordinary guy, but the choices I make are extraordinary! So it’s going to be great to share that story about Loren, and I’m hoping she’ll go on to inspire and empower lots of women around the world. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about – helping others find their hidden potential.

MIKE: With Loren being an expedition novice, how have you helped her prepare for this mission?

BRANDO: Well, for starters, before Loren left home I made sure that she had everything in order – that she wasn’t going to be worrying about something she’d done or hadn’t done back home … that her headspace was in a good place! I mean, we can’t really prepare for all the mental challenges we’re going to face, but if everything back at home is good, then the expedition is going to start positively.

In terms of physical training, she’s been seeing a personal trainer, going for long bike rides, etc. Which, if I’m completely honest, is a lot more than I’ve been doing! My last bit of exercise was in February when I raced in the Coast to Coast! So we’re going to start slow and take it easy, and we’ll get fitter and fitter as we go. I’ll be going as fast as her, or she as fast as me – depending on who’s slower!

The mental aspect is obviously going to be the hardest part – for both of us. And being away from Ngaio for this long is going to be tough! But on this journey, we’re so heavily connected to the outside world – I’ve got a satellite phone for daily updates; we’ve got a live tracker that sends off a ping every half hour, so people can see exactly where we are ... Plus, I’ll be doing video and media updates whenever we have internet coverage.

MIKE: So how long are you expecting this to take?

BRANDO: Roughly 90 days is what I’ve estimated. I’m really terrible at maths, so I might be out by 90 days! I know when I walked around New Zealand, I told everyone I’d be back in six months, and 600 days later … Anyway, I’ve worked out that if we travel, on average, 54 kilometres each day, we’ll be done in 60 days. So I’ve allowed a few extra. There’s no limit, but in saying that, we have food for that amount of time – so don’t want to be too much longer!

MIKE: Speaking of food and other necessities … what’s your accommodation going to look like?

BRANDO: We’ll be in tents for most of the journey, but if we find a roadhouse in the outback (depending on how much it costs) we might splash out and get a shower and a burger … or roo tail … or goat sausage – or whatever they eat in the outback!

The biggest challenge will be water, because we’ll be crossing a bunch of deserts, like the Simpson and Gibson. In fact, the moment we leave Steep Point, we’ll be in a desert pretty much all the way until we get to Birdsville – about two-thirds of the way across Australia! And then the rest of it is kind of like a desert, except with a bit more water!

We’ll have the capacity to take around 60 litres of water each – which is what we’ve been told we’ll need to cross the Simpson Desert. I think there are a few hundred kilometres between refills! So that’s 60 kilograms worth of water, plus gear, plus bike … The weight is a big concern right now – I’m just hoping it’s physically possible!

MIKE: What do you want to get out of this trip?

BRANDO: You know, one thing I see a lot is people raising awareness for mental health. But we’re all pretty aware that there are lots of people depressed and lots of people who struggle, aren’t we? So I don’t want to be someone who simply raises awareness. I want to be someone who’s empowering people take control of their own mental health – to do things that’ll help them take back that control. Obviously, people sometimes need help from others – and hopefully I can be a part of that, maybe just by being that voice that makes someone think, “You know what, I’m going to set my alarm for 6am tomorrow, get up and go for a 20 minute run”. That kind of thing can really help!

So that’s my biggest reason for this mission – the message of empowerment. Aside from that, I want to have a good time! And especially for Loren; I want her to look back on this experience and say, “that was the hardest thing I’ve done, but I had the most amazing time of my entire life!”